Jakarta’s religious card 

The future of one of the world’s largest cities, Jakarta, lies in the balance. As ethnicity and religion have been increasingly exploited, the colossal problems facing the next governor are largely ignored. 

No outright winner was declared after the final televised election debate last week to appoint the Indonesian capital’s governor, leaving the campaign on a knife edge.

The two hopefuls competing for the gubernatorial job are eying swing voters among the 7-million-strong electorate ahead of Wednesday’s run-off poll. Ethnic-Chinese Christian incumbent, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, commonly known as Ahok, and his deputy, Djarot Saiful Hidayat, failed to secure the majority needed to win the February 15 election.

And now opinion polls suggest one percentage point separates the pair from their rivals Anies Baswedan and his running mate Sandiaga Uno.

A Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting poll suggested 5.2 per cent of voters were undecided.

In 2004, as a PhD student in political science at Northern Illinois University, Baswedan wrote about the political potential of Islam in Indonesia.

In his paper, “Political Islam in Indonesia, present and future trajectory”, Baswedan argued: “[F]ertile ground exists for Islam-friendly political parties to attract considerable support from ‘Muslim’ voters.” He defined “Muslim voters” as the devout and practising adherents of the faith.

And Baswedan has courted the Muslim vote in the tight race against Ahok.

The campaign has been punctuated by several huge, Islamic-themed anti-Ahok rallies in late 2016 and an ongoing blasphemy trial.

Before the trial, Ahok had an approval rating of more than 70 per cent and appealing to the Islamic base has been the only way for Baswedan to undermine his dominance.

Aleksius Jemadu, a political scientist at Pelita Harapan University, said: “We cannot underestimate the effect of using religion, the last instrument they could use in order to win the election, considering the fact that quite a number of people in Jakarta are conservative Muslims.”

Baswedan, a former rector of Paramadina University, was previously seen as a learned religious moderate, but his image has transformed as Ahok’s support has remained stubborn.

And the link between religion and politics is made with little subtlety.

Anti-Ahok leaflets and banners have been displayed at mosques across the city, threatening to deny funeral rites to Muslims who support the Christian candidate. Around 1,000 of the banners had been removed during the campaign, Ahok’s team said.

But Jakarta needs effective leadership to address its many challenges and a governor who can address real issues.

The megacity is literally sinking, with 40 per cent of its land below sea level as it falls at between three and 20cm a year due to groundwater extraction.

Greater Jakarta has a population of 30 million, limited public transport and millions of commuters from satellite towns causing endless gridlock and soupy pollution.

Jakarta’s congestion is so intense that the federal government is considering abandoning the former Dutch capital,  previously known as Batavia.

Less crowded sites on Java are being considered. But the island has about 60 per cent of Indonesia’s population of roughly 250 million, while making up just 7 per cent of its territory so the small city of Palangkaraya, on sparsely populated Borneo, is also being considered.

Jakarta’s rubbish-clogged waterways mean the city floods every time there is torrential rain. The floods of 2007 killed 80 people, displaced 500,000 and sparked an outbreak of dengue fever.

This massive potential change for Jakarta has not been given sufficient prominence during the campaign, with Baswedan’s position on the issue relatively opaque.

While Baswedan did not have a formal position on relocation, his campaign spokesman Anggawirra told Fairfax Media the team had discussed it informally and supported the idea in theory. Jakarta, after all, was only designed for 5 or 6 million inhabitants, he added.

Development had been “too Java-centric” and relocating the capital to another island would create alternative economic centres.

“However, the government must do a very careful and comprehensive study about it,” Anggawirra said.

While a stance on potentially the biggest change in the city’s history remains embryonic, religious identity continues to define the race.

Baswedan’s public image had noticeably changed during the campaign, said Hendro Prasteyo of State Islamic University.

“From the beginning of November until now you can see how Anies always uses religious gestures. For example, he always wear the black peci, the black cap,” Prasetyo said, in reference to the hat worn by Muslim men.

“He is going to mosques, and then preaching in the mosque and he also shows his closeness to radical groups like the FPI [the Islamic Defenders Front]. The point is to show he is close to Muslims, and he represents Muslims,” Prasetyo said. “He has had huge success by using religious symbols, which is contradictory to what he was before.”

Ahok has been forced to keep a low profile amid the blasphemy charges and largely refuses interviews.

Days before the vote the Christian governor is due to inaugurate a new government-funded mosque in western Jakarta, accompanied by the president and former Jakarta governor, Joko Widodo.

As with other democratic campaigns in the last year, the Jakarta race is being fought on the wrong issues, using emotion rather than logic.

Jakarta’s problems are not limited to religious differences. Picture credit: Wikimedia